12 September 2011

Slowly, then all at once

Ernest Hemingway said that about a man going broke.

In an article on CNN about Borders Book demise, it uses that quote to sort of tale where a once great book company petered out after 40 years. After 14 years of working with them, being part of the system that began falling apart as soon as I joined them, you hear things, you learn things.

The first part of the article talks history of the company, the love of its devoted staff and how being purchased by Kmart helped the company expand by giving it a financial flow. But it's demise was sown when that company spun Borders and Waldenbooks (which it already had) off into their own company and went public.

"When you become a public company, you have certain obligations, and in my opinion, when those responsibilities and obligations are not managed correctly, (they) lead to what we have now," said Robert Teicher, who was the chain's longtime fiction buyer.

"When Borders expanded, they brought in executives from supermarkets and department stores (all of whom insisted they were readers), and the result was a shuffle of titles and more downsizing against a backdrop of financial engineering, which only seemed to make matters worse," Public Affairs founder Peter Osnos wrote in The Atlantic.

The company spent millions launching a website in 1998 only to hand over the shipping to rival Amazon.com three years later, which is sort of like giving your house keys to thieves. By the time the company wrestled Borders.com back in 2008, the damage was irreversible. They also spent untold amounts of money renovating stores and then decided to create a model for the "store of the future," with different fixtures and carpeting -- none of which, according to long-time Borders Store 1 GM Joe Gable, could be retrofitted to Borders' 500 stores.

"They spend millions developing this stupid ('store of the future') and then six months later they pull the plug on it," he said. "So picture the money just pouring out. Then they get a new guy in. I say, 'What do we need?' (He says,) 'We need a new idea for a store.' 'Well, what could that possibly be?' 'Let's call it "the concept store." ' Let's have more consultants, and let's develop totally different fixtures -- metal fixtures -- and let's have a different layout, this time instead of a racetrack, people will find things by bumping into them!"

The revolving door that took over Ann Arbor - 4 CEOs in just the last five years alone - was another sign the company was loosing its direction. Longtime staff members were jumping ship mainly, it seemed, because no one wanted to listen, to understand that what Borders needed was not glitter balls or gardening tools, but books.

So, as Teicher noted, you began to see a "devolution" of customer service and selection. Gable added "Not only did they not pay attention to the selection,they continued to downgrade the selection by emphasizing in its place things that were nonbook items. The point was that Borders was completely indistinguishable from B&N and the competition. The books that you could buy at Borders you could buy at Costco -- cheaper."

In the end, Gable concluded "The problem with the new guys is they tried to take the book business, which is complex and boring, and make it simple and sexy."

But beyond the financial blunders -the over expansion, the devotion to CD and then DVDs when it was becoming very obvious it was time to retire them, and the huge turnover within Ann Arbor and even its older stores - the huge, near glacial reaction to the e-readers is very telling. When Amazon introduced the Kindle in 2005, it was the only thing on the market. B&N joined the digital devices by introducing The Nook, a little over two years later. Borders waited until 2010, and partnered with the Canadian company Kobo instead of creating their own reader (even though we did carry the Sony e-reader starting in 2008, but that device was just way over priced).

Last Christmas, Borders offered seven versions of e-readers/tablets. Only problem with that -beyond giving the customers too much choice - was they were all dubious devices that worked a few weeks and died, or did not work at all. It was an embarrassment and forced staff members to hawk products they knew were crap.

So since the liquidation began in mid July, the words of why we where closing were on the lips of many. And no, it was not because of the e-readers or even Amazon. While they certainly play a role in this near Greek Tragedy, the seeds of its death were planted back in the late 1990s. It was a slow to start, but it accelerated in the last few years due a lot to ineptitude on the part of the leaders of this company. They could not, or would not, try to understand what their customers wanted.

Raping the company was the only thing some within Ann Arbor understood. And now, it is done.

Say goodnight, Gracie.

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